Sunday, September 15, 2013

Do You Speak Chicken? Flock Social Behavior and How Chickens Communicate

By Leigh - 

OK - so I'm not exactly the Rosetta Stone of the chicken world, but I think most people who keep poultry in a natural setting soon see for themselves that chickens communicate with each other. While much of their language is nonverbal, chickens do use a wide variety of vocalizations also.

So, what do chickens talk about?

The Flock:
We've all heard and witnessed flock pecking order. Every flock develops their own hierarchy within days of being put together in a coop, run or free range environment. This hierarchy also changes as new birds are added or removed from the flock. 

Flock status is developed through both verbal and nonverbal communications. Birds working to establish themselves as being of a higher rank than another bird will growl, screech, peck and jump at other birds. This behavior will continue until one bird relents and submits to the other bird by running away. This can often be seen at roosting time when older birds refuse to allow younger or birds of lower status on the same roost. (For this reason, multiple roosts are helpful in larger flocks.)

Chickens do develop lasting relationships with each other. It is very common to have various sets of BFFs within the flock. In fact, if something bad happens to one of the partners in this kind of friendship relationship, the other bird will often behave in an 'off' manner for some time following it's friend's disappearance. The remaining bird may search the yard daily or refuse to leave the spot it last saw its friend. Interestingly in cases where one friend has been isolated due to an injury and then reintroduced to the flock, the bird's friendship partner will usually instantly recognize it and the bond will resume right away.

Cockerels and roosters will spar with each other to decide who will be the dominant rooster in the flock. In most cases no blood is drawn and the argument will end when one rooster runs away. Many roosters can happily coexist in a free ranged flock provided there is a rooster to hen ratio of at least 3 hens to every 1 rooster. (More hens per roo is better.)

A flock's pecking order becomes very obvious at feeding time. The top hens will eat first, chasing off the lower-ranked and younger birds. Only when the top hens have eaten their fill will the lower-ranked birds be allowed to eat. Usually roosters will eat last, but it is not uncommon for a head rooster to eat before younger cockerels are allowed to dine.

If any of the flock witness a potential danger, they may take up a group cacophony danger call. I can only guess that this particular call is meant to frighten off predators. It is very similar to the Egg Song (more on the egg song later) and starts with a loud, frightened "buk-buk-buk-buk BAGAWK!" The end part of the call goes up not only in volume but in tone. A story - last winter my family went to visit a farm with Silkies that were kept in a barn. One of us sneezed and we were instantly almost deafened by this warning call as it was taken up by perhaps 200 Silkies all at once! If I were a domestic cat or small dog, I might think twice about getting any closer.

Of course there are times that blood will be drawn by hens or roosters alike. The roosters of some breeds are more aggressive than others and these birds may continue a fight after another rooster has backed down. Research your breeds and observe the interactions between roosters regularly to make sure you don't have problems like this in your yard.

It's also not uncommon to hear of someone who has a hen that is being picked on by flock mates to the point of being bald and bloody. While it is normal to have some pecking and disagreements among flock members, it is rare to see this kind of abuse within a free ranged flock. Free ranged birds can stay away from a nemesis throughout the day. Picking and bullying is most often seen in flocks that are kept in a coop or run for most or all of the day. It can be a sign of boredom, not enough meat protein in the diet or over-crowding. Feeding plenty of meat protein each week and placing stumps, toys and a variety of perches in the run can help, but in the most severe cases either the main abuser or the main victim should be removed from the flock. If the problems continue, it is time to assess the amount of coop and run space your birds have. Check out our article on space requirements here:  

Rooster to Hen Communications:

(A rooster calls his flock over to a treat.)

If you have both hens and roosters, chances are you have witnessed your rooster vocally calling his hens over to share a special treat he has found. When a rooster locates a particularly juicy bug or super yummy plant, he will make an excited, low clucking sound that the hens recognize as a signal to come over and look. This behavior has two purposes. First, the rooster helps to insure his hens are getting proper nutrition. Second, once the rooster gains the trust of his hens, it becomes easier for him to mount and breed them.

The mating communication is primarily nonverbal. The rooster will drop a wing and spread it out to signal he wants to mate. He will do a rather funny looking shuffle-dance with his feet as he displays his roosterish plumage. Generally the hen will squat at this time, but if she does not want to accept his amorous advances, she may screech or cluck loudly and run away. The sound an unwilling hen makes is often recognizable to the human ear as being distressed or angry.
Learn more about the chicken mating rituals here: 
How Do Chickens "Do It?" Chicken Sex Explained

Roosters are very serious about their job of keeping their flock safe. While hens and chicks roam the yard searching for treats, a rooster will keep his eyes open for danger throughout the day. If he spots anything that looks dangerous, he will make a loud, low growling or screeching sound to warn the rest of the flock. At his sound, the rest of the flock will freeze and look for the source of the danger and then run for cover. Ironically, flock members quickly learn to ignore the warnings of certain young cockerels that alarm over everything from a lizard to a falling leaf. Yes - the hens know which roosters to listen to and which to ignore just by the sound of their voice.

Lastly, roosters will quietly "talk" to their flock at roosting time. If you are quiet, you can hear the vocal exchange going on in the coop at dusk as the chickens are getting settled for the night. The rooster will make low, gentle clucking sounds as will many of the hens.

Hen to Chick Communication:

There are few things more enjoyable to watch than a hen with her brood of chicks! 

Like roosters, hens have a variety of calls to guide their chicks. For chickens it seems that language starts even before hatch. Once a chick internally pips (breaks through the internal membrane of the egg and begins breathing air) it can be heard peeping inside the shell. The mother bird hears this and will coo and cluck to her babies as they hatch. Prior to hearing this peeping, the broody hen is generally completely quiet. The only exception to the quiet broody rule is that many hens will growl rather ferociously if their nest is approached.

(Get the %&$# away from my eggs!)

Most of my own hens will start free ranging with their chicks by the second day post-hatch. She will cluck almost continuously as they explore, and the chicks will peep back the entire time. By doing this, they all keep track of each other.

When mom finds something edible, she will cluck excitedly as she picks up and drops the object over and over again until one of the chicks gathers the courage to try it. Within a few days, the chicks have learned to trust their mother's judgement and will quickly gobble up anything she offers. 

Hens alert their chicks to possible danger with a low growling sound. When the chicks hear this, they instinctively know to take cover under mom. If the mother determines there is an actual danger, she also uses body language to warn off a predator... or even just other chickens. For the first few weeks, she will do what she can to keep her flock mates far away from her babies!

(A broody hen will take on the 'Turkey' stance to make herself look larger and more threatening.)
(Below - the same hen... in a more relaxed stance.)

Chicks learn by watching their mother or other chicks. If you have chicks in a brooder, you can teach them to try new foods or use a different waterer by clucking like a mother hen with a quick "buk, buk, buk, buk..." and tapping the new treat or object with one finger. Day-old chicks will race right over to see what you are showing them. If one learns to eat something new or drink from a different kind of waterer, it will only be a matter of hours before the rest of the chicks pick up the behavior from the first one. (Cool, huh?) 

The Egg Song:
The egg song is very similar to the flock warning call: "buk-buk-buk-buk BAGAWK!" The subtle difference is the tone that is used. It can be very hard to tell the two apart, but once a person has become very familiar with their flock, they might be able to liken the warning call to a frightened crowd of people and the egg song to a joyous celebration. Hens seem to want everyone to know of their success in creating the most wonderful egg of all time (every day) and others will often take up the celebratory cry also.

In my own flock I have a few that have very average egg songs, one who clearly has the spirit of an opera singer trapped within her, and one who sounds a tad like Bruce Springsteen. Yes - they are all quite individual in their calls.

Battery Hens & Meat Birds in Industrial Settings

Studies of hens or meat birds that have been brought out of an industrial-type setting have proven quite fascinating! It is common practice for battery hens to be debeaked (the tip of the beak is literally removed) because in these crowded conditions it is common for the birds to pick on or even cannibalize one another. Social interactions of these birds are limited to the 2-3 other birds stuffed into the same small cage. There is rarely natural sunlight in these settings, no dust for bathing, no grass in which to hunt bugs in... only the wire of a cage floor.

Even in so-called "free range" settings, the industry does not provide a good environment for relationships to develop between chickens. I mean, seriously - if you were in a warehouse packed wall-to-wall with other people, you might make a friend, but it would be difficult to find them ever again in the throng.

The noise in these settings is almost deafening so it would be nearly impossible for the chickens to communicate well with each other. They don't have a choice as to who they spend their time with or what they spend their time doing.

As a result of these conditions, it has been observed that the chickens seem to lack personality. Instead of a sharp, inquisitive expression, the birds usually look dull and uninterested. Many can not even walk properly if liberated from these cage-filled warehouses. (Google "battery hens" and click on the images... if you dare.)

Yet - once liberated (should they be so lucky) instinct kicks in. The birds will observe other birds and start scratching, digging, sunning themselves and dust bathing within hours. Vocal and nonverbal communications between these birds is delayed at first. They often don't make the same sounds as chickens raised in a healthy, natural setting, but with time they do learn to communicate.

And just how smart are chickens? Well - studies suggest they are as clever as a toddler and learn new things quickly, given the right incentive. Need proof? YouTube is full of videos of people training chickens. Click HERE for a listing.

So - if you have read this entire article, give yourself credit for passing Chicken-Speak 101!

~ Leigh ~ 

Leave a comment and tell us what kind of chicken talk have you witnessed in your own flock!



  1. Love listening to my chickens!
    We did rescue some battery chooks and it was sad how little they knew to do. Hubby soon became a good rooster and talked to the girls as he dug up worms for them, they soon learnt that when he had the spade in hand and started making chook noises that something good to eat was coming!!

  2. We dont have roosters because they are not allowed, but I do get frustrated with the pecking of newcomers. I have a bantam that was so mean to a particular Jersey Giant, using her back legs to really beat up this big chicken. So one day I threw a small rock at her feet and the bantam limped for awhile, has now fully recovered and no longer attackes that chicken. Your information was very helpful for me. I plan to print some of it for my future refrence. Thank you.

  3. Hi there,

    We recently rescued a gorgeous rooster and he is a real character! We don't have hens for him yet but he communicates with us all the time. He does the drop wing shuffle dance, calls us over to see what he's found and also clicks his beak sometimes. We are wondering what the beak clicking means?

    1. Usually the clicking is another way to get your attention in hopes of sharing a choice morsel with you. It sounds like your rooster is a keeper! Hopefully he'll stay polite once he does get some girls to protect.

  4. I sit with my chickens for at least an hour a day in their run and watch them and feed them little treats and such. My Roo makes the cutest sounds when he finds a tasty treat for his girls. Sometimes he does his little come hither dance at me and I just laugh and brush him off or pick him up and cuddle him, as his name is MR Cuddles, he just a push over, however he is 4 months old and is growing up. It is fun to watch them grow in front of my eyes. My boyfriend thinks I like my chicken more than him. Maybe sometimes :)

  5. One of my young hens has started doing the dropped wing dance in front of the rooster after being mated. Or when she doesn't want to be mated. Why?

    1. Is she a very dominant hen? It *could* be her way of reminding him who the top hen is... but I'm not really sure. Chickens do learn things from other chickens so we can only guess that she learned this from the rooster and is using it for her own purposes in some way.
      She sounds like a character!

  6. She isn't top hen; she is only 5 months old. I have never seen this before from hens, only from the roosters. Oh well, another new behaviour from the chickens! I seem to have a lot of "characters" in my flock!

  7. I absolutely love your post about chickens. I have owned mine 6 wks and still not sure if i have a rooser. Lol. But i love them to death. They are very smart and funny. I watch close and no one is excessively mean like you hear about when there are just too many birds. Im very pleased with my chicks.

  8. as soon as evening kicks in, my hens and one juvenile rooster wants to sit on my lab and enjoy company. One chicken starts making small very cosy little noises and soon every-one gathers and make comparable little noises. It sounds as it they are all perfectly happy with the upcoming gatherin gs...

  9. If a bantumchicken is dust bathing and you go over to it, and it settles in and spreads its wings a little little and quietly bucks when you touch it, is it scared or wanting feather scratching.


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